The odd denomination Three Dollar gold piece was introduced in 1854, ostensibly to facilitate large purchases on three cent stamps. This denomination proved cumbersome almost immediately and it soon lost popularity. It somehow limped along until it was abolished in 1889.
Amongst collectors, this denomination has seen ebbs and flows in popularity. In the 1880’s, dealers bought quantities of low mintage dates on “spec” creating odd situations in which issues such as the 1881, 1883, 1884, and others are almost never seen in grades below AU55 to AU58 despite never having been exported as with other issues with similar grade distributions. In the modern era of rare date gold collecting, with just a few exceptions, this denomination has never been all that popular.
In the early-to-mid 2000’s, Three Dollar gold pieces saw a surge in popularity as they were promoted by dealers (including myself), and a book on the series written by Dave Bowers and myself appeared. But during the last decade, interest in this series has waned. In the last six months or so, I am beginning to see signs of life in the Three Dollar series and perhaps this article will inspire some new collectors as well.
There are numerous ways in which to collect this series and, as always, these methods range from a toe-dipping-in-the-water to a full-on plunge. Here are some of my personal suggestions.
1. Complete Date Set
Only two truly complete collections of Threes have ever been assembled: Louis Eliasberg and Harry Bass. This is due to the fact that the 1870-S is unique. It currently resides in the ANA Museum in Colorado Springs and until the time it becomes available again, no truly complete set can be assembled.
If we pretend that the 1870-S does not exist, there are two dates (1875 and 1876) which are Proof-only. These can also be ignored if a collection is focused on business strike issues. Traditionally, the 1875 and 1876 have, in fact, been included and I believe that they should be.
The 1875 has a reported mintage of just 20 Proofs although I believe that a small number of additional coins were (re)struck either later in the year or possibly in 1876 to satisfy collector demand. It has been regarded as a Classic Rarity for over a century and the Pogue III: 3117 example, which sold for $329,000 set a record price for this issue.
The 1876 has a reported mintage of 45 Proofs and this date, as well, seems likely to have been restruck. It is far more available—and much less expensive—than its counterpart the 1875.
(The 1873 Open 3 was also struck only as a Proof with a reported mintage of 25; it, too, was likely restruck to satisfy demand. As the collector has the choice of purchasing the more available 1873 Closed 3, the Open 3 is not a necessary requirement to complete a set, in my opinion).
The total number of issues struck including the three Proof-only issue and the 1870-S is 44. If we subtract those four issues, we are looking at 40 coins. These were struck at the following mints:
- Philadelphia: 1854-1889
- San Francisco: 1855-1857, 1860 and 1870
- Dahlonega: 1854 only
- New Orleans: 1854 only
Excluding the three Proof-only issues and the unique 1870-S, no other date in the series is really rare from an absolute standpoint although a number are rare in higher grades. The hardest dates to find from the standpoint of overall rarity are as follows:
- 1873 Closed 3
Unlike other denominations from this era, Threes (especially from Philadelphia) tended to be saved and a significant percentage of survivors for many dates are seen in relatively high grades. Of the eight dates listed above, the two rarest in higher grades are the 1854-D and the 1855-S; two of the three mintmarked issues (note: the rarity of the 1855-S, as well as other Threes from this mint, will likely soon change due to coins found on the SS Central America).
Is it possible to assemble a complete set of Threes in Uncirculated? Yes it is and I can think of at least two full sets of Mint State coins: Pogue (which was largely made up of coins from the Great Lakes collection) and the recently-formed DL Hansen. I know of at least four other sets that were virtually complete in Uncirculated: Harry Bass, the still-in-progress South Texas collection and from the early part of the 21st century the Richard Jewell and Hank Daughtry collections.
We are, of course, speaking a seven figure commitment for an Uncirculated set of Three Dollar gold pieces. If you love this series but can’t commit this kind of money towards it, you can modify the set.
A much more feasible alternative would be a complete set in AU55 to MS62 grades. This would make the biggest single coin likely an AU55 1854-D (currently a $50,000+ purchase) with most of the other issues costing $5,000-10,000+.
2. Complete Year Set
A year set of Threes would include one issue from each year. This would run to a total of 34 coins and it would lack the 1875 and 1876 but would include the 1873 Closed 3.
Due to the fact that there are just six collectable mintmarked Threes, a streamlined year set isn’t a huge money saver over a complete date set, plus it would delete some of the more interesting issues of this type like the 1854-D (in favor of the mundane 1854 Philadelphia). If you are going to spend the money for 34 different Three Dollar gold pieces, find the extra scratch need to buy the remaining six mintmarked issues.
3. By Type
My best estimate is that 95% of all collectors who buy a Three Dollar gold piece purchase it as a type coin.
Given a collector’s budget, the two grades I like most for this type are AU58 and MS64. In AU58, this design is really appealing and you can currently buy a common date in a PCGS AU58 for less than $1,500. For around $2,000, it should be possible to buy a slightly scarcer date or a common date with CAC approval. A decade ago, common dates in AU58 cost over $2,000.
At one time, a Three Dollar gold piece had to be pretty special to grade MS65; today, not so much. For this reason, I prefer MS64 (and MS64+) examples for a higher grade type set. MS64 Three Dollar gold pieces are readily available and with some patience, the type collector can find a nice PCGS MS64 for less than $4,000. A common date in PCGS MS64 with a CAC sticker should be buyable for just a few hundred dollars more. Just as an FYI, at the height of the market for this denomination in late 2005/early 2006, I was selling MS64 1878 Threes for $11,000-13,000.
While not widely known, there are actually two distinct types of Three Dollar gold pieces. The 1854 is a one-year design with the small letters in the word DOLLARS. Beginning with the 1855, all issues show larger lettering in this word.
Proofs of this design were made every year from 1854 through 1889. There is a unique branch mint Proof dated 1855-S and, as I mentioned above, the 1875 and 1876 (as well as the 1873 Close 3) were made only as Proofs.
It is a daunting project but collecting Three Dollar gold piece Proofs by date is a realistic goal. The PCGS Registry lists four complete sets: Tom Bender, Harry Bass, The Garrett Family, and Ed Trompeter. I don’t know the exact number of other complete sets but I would venture to guess at least a half dozen others have been formed since the beginning of the 20th century.
There are some really rare Proof Threes and these tend to be dates which are not as well-known as the famous Proof-only issues. In my experience, the 1855, 1856, 1857, 1861, and 1866 are all extremely rare with fewer than 10 pieces known. In fact, only the 1882-1889 issues can be termed “available” and this is due to an increase in mintage figures and a higher survival rate.
A fair question to ask about Proof Threes is how much of a premium should the collector pay for Cameo and Deep Cameo coins.
The answer is contingent on two factors: the “look” of a specific date and the appearance of a specific coin.
If most Proofs from a specific issue are seen with a Cameo contrast, then I feel the premium for a specific coin designated as “Cameo” should be very minimal; 5% at most.
Deep Cameo or Ultra Cameo (the designation employed by NGC) coins can have a really spectacular appearance. If you have the chance to buy a coin with a great appearance as the result of stark black and white appearance, it is worthy of serious consideration. Let’s look at a specific example.
Proof 1856 Threes are really rare with an estimated five to eight known outside of museums. PCGS has graded just four and three of them aren’t designated as DCAM. The one which is a DCAM is a monster PR65+ example. Given its status, I’d suggest that this coin gets a very healthy DCAM premium.
5. Four Mint and Four Decade Sub-Sets
It’s hard to get cute with exotic mini-sets of Threes given the cut-and-dry nature of this denomination. There are two interesting sub- sets which I can think of.
The first of these is a four mint set. This encompasses each facility that struck this design: Philadelphia, Dahlonega, New Orleans, and San Francisco.
The Philadelphia coin will be easy to locate and I would suggest including an interesting issue, such as a low mintage or maybe a Civil War date. I would budget $5,000-10,000 for this.
The Dahlonega coin is the rare and popular one-year 1854-D. This coin is the stopper to this set and you need to budget at least $30,000 to $40,000, if not more.
The New Orleans issue is also a one-year type, but the 1854-O is readily available in grades through AU55. You should be able to acquire a nice, wholesome AU for $5,000-7,500.
There are four collectable San Francisco dates and all but one is currently rare in higher grades. The 1856-S, by virtue of its higher mintage, is the most available. It will require at least $25,000-35,000+ to complete this set in AU grades.
6. Buying Tips
Here are a few buying tips which might prove helpful for the new collector of Three Dollar gold pieces.
- Since most issues are produced at the Philadelphia mint, strike is not an important factor in assessing this series. If you like well-made coins, this is an ideal denomination for you.
- Many of the Civil War-era issues are seen with mint-made diagonal die finishing lines in the planchet. Do not confuse these with hairlines which are the result of improper cleaning.
- The original mintage figures for business strikes from the 1880’s are not a good indication of the rarity of these dates as an unusually high percentage were saved by contemporary collectors, dealers and speculators.
- Low mintage issues are often fully prooflike but these coins are usually very easy to distinguish from Proofs.
- A number of Proofs display unusual “orange peel” surface texture which is unique to this denomination. I don’t know the exact reason for this but would expect that it has to do with die preparation.
- Undipped, “original” examples of this denomination tend to show rich yellow-gold or orange-gold hues. Learn to determine original coloration by viewing these coins (and others) in the DWN Coinapedia.
- There is considerable variance on surface texture from year to year. As an example, the luster on an 1866 Three is much different than that seen on an 1868. The best way to learn this is to examine coins and, less ideally, comb through images.
- With the exception of the 1854 and 1878, nearly every pre-1879 date in this series is rare in properly graded MS64 and very rare to extremely rare in MS65 and above. If you collect very high grade Threes, be aware that the opportunity to purchase these coins is very infrequent.
- Certain dates in this series (the 1873 comes to mind) are almost non-existent with original color and choice surfaces. On dates which are rare as such, do not be afraid to pay a premium if a really nice piece comes available.